Backpacking tips: Properly loading your backpack


For the hardiest among us, backpacking season is year-round. But for most, it’s something that is starting just as winter’s grip begins to ease.

People are getting in shape for it, checking out new gear and making grand plans.

But you need to pay close attention to what you’re putting on your back. Or more specifically, how you’re putting all that stuff on your back.

Quick story. I was backpacking in New Mexico and had just descended Wheeler Peak’s summit. We were in a hurry to pack up camp and get off the mountain before dark. I was pretty tired and didn’t really pay attention how I was loading my pack. I just stuffed the pack, shouldered it and motored on down the trail.

It took less than a mile before I felt that my back was getting ready to go out. I was forced to stop, unpack it and repack everything correctly.

One mile. That’s all it took. How you load your backpack matters.

So here are some tips…

If you’re hiking on a trail with an internal frame pack: Load your lighter stuff on the bottom of your pack. That would include things like your sleeping bag, some clothes or other lightweight items. Lighter items should also be loaded in the areas furthest away from your back. Medium-weight items go in the middle of the pack. These might include some foods, tent poles and the like. Heavier items should be loaded higher on the pack and close to your back. Those items would include your cooking gear, a water bladder, metal tools (like a hatchet) and so forth.

If you’re hiking off-trail with an internal frame pack: Similar to above, but the heavier items should be concentrated in the middle of the pack and close to your back. This increases stability when you’re hiking in places where you’re going over steeper or more uneven terrain. Load the lighter items in the lower regions of the pack and toward the places furthest from your back, medium-weight things higher up.

If you’re hiking while using an external frame pack: Load the heavier items in the middle and upper portions of the pack and close to your back. Lighter items, again, go on the bottom and further away from your pack. Medium-weight items go in the middle of the pack.

It’s also important to adjust your pack straps so you have a proper fit. Be sure the waist belt is fitted in such a way that your hips are bearing the bulk of the pack’s weight. This will ease the burden on your shoulders. If your shoulders are bearing too much weight, you will not only get sore shoulders, but you’ll cut off circulation to your head. A nice way to bring on headaches.

Here’s a handy diagram:


At the same time, you don’t want the shoulder straps loose. That will increase pack sway, which leads to instability and can actually cause back strain as your body constantly adjusts for the pack’s movement. Keep it snug enough to cut down movement, but not so tight that it digs in.

A lot of packs are also adjustable to your torso length. That should be something you take care of well before you set out. Having it set correctly will ensure that your hip belt is positioned to take on the pack’s weight in a balanced way while also assuring that your shoulder straps are hitting your body properly.

Those are a few of the things I’ve learned in terms of correct pack loading and fit. If you do it right, you minimize the difficulties of shouldering the weight of your pack, which will add many more pleasant miles of outdoor exploration. Enjoy it!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


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